The comic-book genius who created Sin City and made the Dark Knight really dark has a few things he wants to get off his chest
PLAYBOY: You and Robert Rodriguez co-directed Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, based on the Sin City comic books you wrote in the early 1990s. What’s the division of labor between you and Rodriguez?
MILLER: He’s the P.T. Barnum, the overall boss of the crew and the most energetic force on the set. I’ve often joked with him that if he were Elvis Presley, I’d be Bob Dylan, because I like to go off alone and work quietly with people. I’m the guy actors go to when they need to ask a question about the characters. On my comic strips I work alone. When I first got involved in filmmaking, which I never thought I’d do, my biggest fear was working with actors. And it ended up being my greatest joy, because I know the backstories of all the characters and I finally have somebody to explain them to.
PLAYBOY: Your first two experiences in Hollywood, in the early 1990s, weren’t very happy. Didn’t you vow not to work there again after writing the screenplays for RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3?
MILLER: I came back from RoboCop 2 convinced that writing a screenplay was the equivalent of building a fire hydrant and then having dogs run around and piss on it. I swore I’d never touch movies again. I don’t see how I could function in film if I didn’t have my comics. If I were one of those hungry screenwriters everybody sees in Hollywood, starving, begging and compromising for work, I’d end up at Musso & Frank’s bar with a martini, talking about the story I should be doing. I think screenplays are essentially stupid. I certainly do not regard working in Hollywood as a step up from comics, by any means.
PLAYBOY: After swearing off movies, why did you help adapt Sin City for Hollywood?
MILLER: Because Robert Rodriguez said he wanted to show me what he would do with Sin City. The irony here is that I designed Sin City so it could not be adapted to film. I wanted to show people what comics could do that movies couldn’t. When Rodriguez showed up, I was so ornery. I ignored his first three phone calls. I wouldn’t even meet him in my home. I met him at a Hell’s Kitchen bar, and he was the only one there with a cowboy hat on who was straight. He showed me some rough work he’d done, and it was impressive. I thanked him and told him the answer was no. He went back to Texas. Then he said maybe we could shoot a scene just to see what it was like. It’s not the sort of offer you turn down. So I went to Texas, where he had built a fully functional set, and at one point Marley Shelton looked at me with her beautiful big eyes and said, “Why did my character hire somebody to kill her?” Marley grasped it all and went out and gave three times the performance she had before. I walked over to Robert, kicked him in the shins and said, “I’m in.”
PLAYBOY: Why did you have to kick him in the shins?
MILLER: He’s a Texan.
PLAYBOY: Jessica Alba, who plays the stripper Nancy Callahan in the Sin City films, recently said, “Sex is absolutely what helps sell this movie, which is fine by me.” What role does sex have in A Dame to Kill For?
MILLER: [Laughs] That sounds like Jessica. The predominant story is about a man whose lifelong obsession with a woman leads him to do horrible things. That’s a new wrinkle for me. Generally the romantic impulse has led my characters to be more noble. There are two primary impulses in people’s lives: sex and violence. It’s like Hitchcock’s wonderful quote when he said melodrama was reality with all the boring parts taken out. It’s not possible to tell a good story without conflict, and the best forms of conflict are sex and violence. I make no apologies for the kind of work I do. You’ll find plenty of violence and sex in grand opera and epic poetry too.
PLAYBOY: When you took over the Batman comic for DC in the mid-1980s with the Dark Knight series, you reinvented him as a crabby and crazy 55-year-old, a change that still influences Hollywood depictions of him. At first you thought Batman was too big a character for you to take on. What changed your mind?
MILLER: It started as a thought: Oh my God, I’m about to turn 30, and Batman is still 29. This is not tolerable. He’s got to be older than me. So I started thinking about making him as old as his legend, and the idea of having him come out of retirement came together quickly.
PLAYBOY: And what about making him crabby and crazy?
MILLER: Well, you do get crabbier as you get older. [laughs] Also, I never believed that a guy who tortured people and dressed like Dracula was the most pleasant person to have over for dinner.
PLAYBOY: There’s a consensus that Daredevil and Elektra, two movies adapted from comics you wrote, were lousy. Do you agree with that opinion?
MILLER: When people come out with movies about characters I’ve worked on, I always hate them. I have my own ideas about what the characters are like. I mean, I can’t watch a Batman movie. I’ve seen pieces of them, but I generally think, No, that’s not him. And I walk out of the theater before it’s over.
PLAYBOY: Does that include the Christopher Nolan Batman movies?
MILLER: It includes all of them. I’m not condemning what he does. I don’t even understand it, except that he seems to think he owns the title Dark Knight. [laughs] He’s about 20 years too late for that. It’s been used.
PLAYBOY: Nolan’s last two Batmanmovies each grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. Does any of that money make its way to you?
MILLER: No. If money’s owed me, I wouldn’t put it on him or any other author. To be sitting here whining and mewling and puking about that sort of thing…let other people do that.
PLAYBOY: Your comic book 300, about the Spartan army and the Battle of Thermopylae in the year 480 B.C., was turned into a hit movie by director Zack Snyder. Why did you call it 300 instead of The 300?
MILLER: I try to get rid of whatever I can. I don’t call him the Batman. There’s only one guy who dresses up like a bat and throws criminals out of windows, so I’ll just call him Batman. The 300 sounds like a position of strength; 300 sounds like a rather paltry number in a battle.
PLAYBOY: Through a spokesman, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the film “an insult” to Iran, as well as a “fabrication” and an act of “cultural and psychological warfare.” Do you consider it an accomplishment to have pissed off Ahmadinejad?
MILLER: I’m ready for my fatwa now. [laughs] I’m banned from Iran, but believe me, I’ve made much greater sacrifices. What I love is that I actually made the Iranian government change its historical policy toward Persia. It went from despising the empire of Persia to all of a sudden loving it, after 300. Persia had been a globe-spanning empire, then Muhammad came along and changed the mentality and rewrote all the histories. Iran’s days of empire are long gone, and they were just looking for something to get pissed off about.
PLAYBOY: More recently you angered a lot of people with Holy Terror, your 2011 comic book about a superhero who fights Al Qaeda. In Wired, a writer called it “a screed against Islam,” and others accused you of depicting Islam as a violent religion. Do you stand by the book?
MILLER: Yes. Why not? I felt the response to 9/11 was tepid, if not disgusting. It’s almost as though they killed 3,000 of my neighbors and we spent the next bunch of years apologizing for it. Since superheroes have a tradition of fighting fascism, why not do it one more time? I don’t know where anyone got the idea it was anti-Islamic. I used, I believe, three Islamic words, which are common Al Qaeda usage. I didn’t feature their religious services. I happen to believe terrorism is a pungent evil, and I’m glad we’re fighting it. It’s incomprehensible to me that people apologize for it or pretend it never happened.
PLAYBOY: You described Holy Terror as “propaganda” in the tradition of Thomas Paine and predicted it would “offend just about everyone.” Has offending people been a goal in your career?
MILLER: I’ve been through periods when I wanted to spend my career annoying or offending people and other times when I wanted to inspire or spin a good yarn or draw a particular kind of car. I remember coming into the worlds of Marvel and DC and wanting to shake things up because they’d been the same way for so long. I wanted to be the bull in the china shop. And sometime in the 1970s along came Will Eisner with A Contract With God, which showed that comic books could have a shelf life and be read repeatedly, not just come out and disappear in time for next week’s cycle.
PLAYBOY: Early in your career the first thing you did to annoy people was to kill off Elektra, a beloved female ninja you created for the Daredevil comic. Did you have any hesitation about doing that?
MILLER: Sure. I had the jitters. There were death threats: “You killed the woman I love. I’m coming after you,” that sort of thing. I was worried for my girlfriend, so I went to the FBI, which explained that because the letters had been opened and had no postmarks or proofs of postage, they couldn’t be considered mail, so I was to take the threats and like it. But killing her was true to the character and true to the story. That’s all that matters.
PLAYBOY: Has the stigma of being a comic-book artist vanished?
MILLER: I hope not. I hope we never lose it. I’ve always liked being one of the naughty boys. People like to refer to comic books as graphic novels or sequential storytelling, all kinds of crazy words. Graphic novels sounds like we’re porn. I like the term comic book, because it sounds like something you fold up and put in your back pocket. I like the goofiness of them. One reason I enjoy the Marvel Comics movies is that they’re fun. A lot of superhero movies are pompous. At one point I was watching Superman, and all I could do was an impersonation of him saying, “Hi, I can fly and you can’t.” Whereas Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man are a bunch of mixed-up crazy kids, just like the readers.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of mixed-up kids, you’ve described yourself as “maladjusted” when you were growing up in Vermont. In what ways were you maladjusted?
MILLER: I was maladjusted only in that I didn’t get along with the rest of the world very well. But I was a happy enough kid. I had an idyllic childhood in the country. I grew up with 14 acres of woods nearby. I didn’t always play well with others, and I was an unusual kid. I needed a lot of time to myself. I had the usual difficulties with authority and with being told what to do. I hated having to be anywhere at any given time, so school was horrible. My grades were pretty good until high school, when I discovered girls, marijuana and beer.
PLAYBOY: You skipped college and moved to New York when you were 17. What was the city like in the late 1970s?
MILLER: It’s kind of like asking George Orwell what sort of time he had in Down and Out in Paris and London. New York was much more dangerous, and people were a lot angrier. I was dirt poor. My first rent was $158 a month for two small rooms. I played around in the subway, rode the back of the trains. I’d go to the top of the Empire State Building, before they put those big screens up, and draw, which really informed how I drew the city. I had a profound belief that things would turn around and that comic books had yet to have their time. Plus, I’d been fired off every other job I’d had, like driving a bus or being a janitor. I would come in and do the worst possible job cleaning, then sit down and use their typewriters to write my stories all night.
PLAYBOY: Your work is clearly influenced by film noir and pulp magazines. Do you prefer the older ideal of masculinity to the one you see represented in culture these days?
MILLER: I believe there has been a crisis of masculinity in modern times, and the 1940s-style gentleman needs to make a comeback—the sort of man who opens the door for women and compliments them and does things for them. I believe it’s a biological function of men, because we tend to be larger than women, to be protective of them. If I were to try to zero in, comic-book-like, on when masculinity went awry, I’d say it was when Rod Stewart sang, “You are my lover, you’re my best friend,” rather than allowing there to be two people in his life who served two very important functions.
PLAYBOY: A lot of Dark Knight readers think you love Batman and hate Superman. Any truth to that?
MILLER: The Dark Knight series is all from Batman's point of view. But if you look at Dark Knight 2, you’ll see a Superman who’s much calmer than the one in the first Dark Knight. Batman and Superman are dead opposites. I love Superman. Do I love Batman more? They’re not people. They’re only lines on paper.
This interview originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Playboy.